Saturday 9 March 2019

A ticket to samovar country: A blog has archived Russian children’s books in translation

A generation grew up reading Russian books in Bengali. The books live again in this blog

“One of Aloyonoushka’s eyes sleeps, the other stares; one ear sleeps, the other listens. Sleep, pretty Aloyonoushka, sleep. Papa will tell you stories, and it seems everyone is present — the Siberian cat Vaska, the shaggy bumpkin doggo Postyoko, Mouse Aunt who lives in the hole, the household cricket from that side of the hearth, the polyphonous polka-dotted birdie in the cage, and the irate rooster. Sleep Aloyonoushka, the story will begin right now.” (Stories of Aloyonoushka by D. Mamin Sibiriyak, translated into Bengali by Noni Bhowmik, English translation mine).

Back in the woods
It is one of the quirks of history that most Bengali children of the Leftist decades of the 70s and 80s had their imaginative world made up of Russians plodding through snow in parkas and earmuffs, water bubbling in samovars, forest huts standing on chicken claws, and most of all, the scary witch Baba Yaga flying around in her mortar, none of which had any connection with the reality of their lives in the sweaty urban jungle of Calcutta.

And yet Russian stories translated into Bengali had an irresistible appeal, chiefly because the translations were good, deftly combining the unfamiliar (for instance, the “Siberian cat” in the quoted text) with the familiar (the “household cricket”, which translates into the onomatopoeic jhnijhni in Bengali, immediately conveying the insect being referred to).

Thrilling: Scanned image from the book, Chunoputi
(The Insignificant)   | Photo
Credit: sovietbooksin

To boot, the books, mostly published by Moscow-based Foreign Language Publication House, Progress (Pragati), Raduga or Mir Publishers, were handsomely illustrated. Parents loved the books too, since, purportedly propaganda literature, they came for a song.

Ready to print
Objects of nostalgia now, these books are being sought to be preserved through digitisation. A Kolkata-based group headed by Somnath Dasgupta and Prosenjit Bandyopadhyay started the project in 2013. Their friends, Nirjon Sen, Souradip Sinha and Farid Aktar Porag from Bangladesh, joined later. The blog, ‘Soviet Books Translated in Bengali’, is a veritable treasure trove — if books like Chuk ar Gek (Chuk and Gek) or Dadur Chashma (Grandpa’s Spectacles) are your long-lost childhood friends, you can find them again as PDFs here.

And like the proverbial best things in life, they come free. All that the bloggers demand is an acknowledgement if any of the work is reproduced.

Dasgupta says, “We started out with the aim to archive all Soviet books translated into Bengali: our intention was to make these books accessible again for everyone.” That turned out to be a Herculean task, since the corpus included not just children’s books but also political and economic works, as well as magazines like Soviet Nari (Soviet Women) and Soviet Union. So they narrowed the project down to children’s books and magazines (Soviet Nari, targeted at home-makers, came with colourful activity pages for children).

Till date, Dasgupta’s team has posted 333 books on their blog. Since the quality of the scanned books is quite good, people have printed them freely, sometimes without acknowledgement. The last might be one reason why this labour of love is on the verge of running aground: the volunteers feel demoralised when strangers appropriate the books without credit. This apart, the demands of their day jobs are making it difficult too. But Dasgupta is optimistic: he says he will post just the raw scans if he doesn’t get people to do the painstaking processing. He plans to include translated Chinese books too.

The blog is a pleasure for yet another reason — you get to know something about the translators, who almost shaped the vocabulary of a particular generation of Bengalis, and yet have sunk into oblivion now.

There is an Youtube clip where Arun Som, one of the better-known translators, talks about why he got interested in Russia: “Maybe because of political inclinations, but also because of my love for the Russian classics... I wanted to make them more accessible to Bengalis.”

(Source: The Hindu)

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